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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Opera Review: Leon Botstein: Vampire Hunter

The American Symphony Orchestra presents Der Vampyr.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
No, this is not a photo of ASO music director Leon Botstein.
But how often do I get to do this?
In 1897, the Bram Stoker novel Dracula captured the imagination of readers with its tale of a blood-sucking, immortal aristocrat from Transylvania. On Sunday afternoon, Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra cracked the coffin on Heinrich Marschner's 1828 opera Der Vampyr, one of the most interesting pre-Stoker works exploring the concept of gothic horror on the stage. This concert version was part of the ASO's regular subscription season at Carnegie Hall.


The vampire's first appearance in Western literature in 1816, with a sketch written by Lord Byron at that famous literary skull session that also inspired  Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. The author John Polidori used the Byron fragment as the basis for his novella “The Vampyre.” A play based on the Polidori story became the source  material for Marschner’s libretto. The opera belongs to that misty period of German opera between Carl Marl Von Weber’s Der Freischütz and Wagner's reinvention of the genre, beginning with Der Fliegende Holländer.

At Sunday's performance, Der Vampyr stood revealed as an entertaining, tuneful piece, gleefully mixing high supernatural drama with occasional comic moments. It’s like Don Giovanni with a higher body count. And its leading character, one Lord Ruthven, (who must kill three lovely virgins or risk being condemned to hell) has many similarities to Mozart's anti-hero. Baritone Nicholas Pellesen proved a suave seducer, with a velvety, unctuous delivery that matched his dapper all-black suit and scarlet tie. He projected the right mix of anarchic evil and a bemused “who-me” attitude, as of all these bloodstained maidens couldn't possibly be his fault.

The baritone was at his best when confronting the show’s primo tenore, Vale Ridout in the role of Aubry. This poor fella is not just the opera’s hero, he is the guy who knows Ruthven’s dirty secures and must remain silent under oath. Their long Act II Great Scene (itself a prototype for the music-drama dialogue technique that Wagner would later perfect ) was musically thrilling. The singers gave fierce performances against a storming orchestral backdrop. Mention should also be made of up-and-coming tenor Glenn Seven Allen in the smaller the role of George. He made the most of this rifle-toting peasant, an analogue to Masetto.

Due to a scheduling error, this reviewer missed the opera's Prologue (and the performance of Alison Buchanan as Lord Ruthven’s first victim.) In Act I, soprano Tamara Wilson gave an impressive performance as Malvina, displaying a lyric instrument that gained in power when entering its upper register. Jennifer Till’s performance as Emmy had an endearing vulnerability, especially in the characters long narrative ballad in Act II. This aria, "Sieh Mutter dorch den bleichen Mann" was one of many ideas cribbed by Wagner. He counted Der Vampyr among his repertory operas as a conductor and even wrote an extension of one of Aubrey's arias (which was performed on Sunday) in 1830.

When Emmy was led offstage by Ruthven (in a sort of vampiric equivalent to "La ci darem la mano") four peasants came forth to the front of the stage. These members of the Collegiate Chorale (tenors Sean Fallen and Timothy O'Connor, basses Daniel Hoy and Michael Riley) led off "In Herbst da du mußt trinken". This four-part drinking song contains one of Marschner's best tunes--and it is performed while Ruthven is gorging on Emmy's blood. This brilliant, wry and horrifying moment is the composer's theatrical master-stroke.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.